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Discrimination Suit Over Dreadlocks Ban Dismissed

October 14, 2016
Carlos Pastrana

Court of Appeals Decision Reiterates that Race is Based on Immutable Characteristics

On September 15, 2016, by a 3-0 decision, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit dismissed a Title VII race discrimination suit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against a company that refused to hire an African American woman because she wouldn’t cut off her dreadlocks.

The complainant in question is Chastity Jones, an African American woman who, in 2010, accepted a job at Catastrophe Management Solutions, an insurance claims processing company in Alabama. Ms. Jones had a dreadlocks hairstyle. Initially, Ms. Jones was hired. However, the company’s human resources manager told her that, as a condition for employment, she needed to cut off her dreadlocks to comply with the company’s grooming policy, because deadlocks “tend to get messy.” The grooming policy in question requires its employees to project “a professional and businesslike image.” When Ms. Jones refused to modify her hairstyle, the company rescinded her offer of employment.

The EEOC filed suit on Ms. Jones’ behalf before the United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, arguing that the employer’s enforcement of its grooming policy was discriminatory. The District Court dismissed the case, and the EEOC appealed. The EEOC’s argument on appeal was that the prohibition of dreadlocks in the workplace constituted race discrimination because dreadlocks are a “determinant of racial identity” that is “physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent.” In so doing, the EEOC argued for the interpretation of race as a social construct, rather than a biological classification with easily-definable immutable characteristics.

In affirming the lower Court’s decision, 11th Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordán held that, while “the distinction between immutable and mutable characteristics of race can sometimes be a fine (and difficult) one”, it is still a distinction that courts have consistently drawn. Courts have, indeed, interpreted racial discrimination to mean discrimination based on skin color and other “immutable traits.” Judge Jordán concluded that, unlike discrimination on the basis of hair texture, which is an immutable characteristic, “adverse action on the basis of black hairstyle (a mutable choice) is not” prohibited by Title VII. Judge Jordán recognized that “in the last several decades, there have been some calls for courts to interpret Title VII more expansively by eliminating the biological conception of ‘race’ and encompassing cultural characteristics associated with race”, but rejected such an expansive view, which no Federal Court had assumed before.

The Eleventh Circuit’s decision is but one setback among several recent judicial victories by African American employees seeking to wear their hair in hairstyles that are traditionally considered “Black”. Last year, an African American woman from Maryland who had been discharged from Hooters for having blond streaks in her hair because it was an “unnatural” hairstyle won $250,000 in a discrimination suit. In 2014, the United States Armed Forces revised hairstyle regulations that had prohibited women from wearing cornrows, dreadlocks, twists, and double ponytails.

The issue of how “race” is defined for purposes of Title VII protection is sure to be litigated again in the not-too-distant future. Although the immutable characteristics of race have consistently proved to be decisive in every inquiry conducted by Federal Court, this is enough of a hot-button issue that Courts will likely continue to be pressured into adopting a more expansive view.

This article is a publication of MWH Law Group LLP and is intended to provide general information regarding legal issues and developments to our clients and other friends. It should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or situations. For further information on your own situation, we encourage you to contact the author of the article or any other member of the firm.

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